Saturday 29 May 2010

The bar-room brawl in the US and Italian western

One of the distinctive, but little remarked upon, features of the Leone western is the absence of the 'fun' bar-room brawl where no-one really gets hurt. This is, however, seen in most other Italian directors' westerns, even when they are otherwise trying to emulate Leone.

I think this reveals a fundamental thing about violence in Leone: It is always for real, for keeps; when someone gets beaten (Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood and Van Cleef in For a Few Dollars More) it's to near-death.


Though not to be confused with Paul Schrader’s 1979 film of the same name, this 1977 British oddity is worth comparing to its US counterpart for the way doing so highlights the differences in attitude and approach between the films and the two countries here.

As a Hollywood studio production, Schrader’s film avoids showing actual hardcore pornographic footage. But it is at least discussed within its narrative, just as reaction shots make it clear what George C. Scott’s puritan protagonist feels about hardcore and its demi-monde, the one his daughter has unexpectedly entered into. Indeed, were it not for the need to maintain the distinction between the X (non-Hollywood, or porn) and the R (Hollywood, or not porn) ratings, one could imagine Schrader as having incorporated X-certificate material into his film.

What's the title, again?

In 1970s Britain, meanwhile, there was no real stigma attached to the X certificate – Schrader’s Hardcore was released as an X – but an almost absolute proscription on the production and distribution of hardcore material.

This puts James Kenelm Clarke’s vehicle for Fiona Richmond, one of the pre-eminent British sex stars of the time, in a curious position: It could use the title Hardcore, but not present Richmond or anyone else in anything beyond softcore footage.

Indeed, it’s approximately 23 minutes in before we get any full frontal (female) nudity, in a scene which also allows for the incorporation of some obligatory pseudo-lesbian frolics.

The idea of the 'production number' normally has different meanings in the musical and the porn film

If this non-hardcore approach implies a bait and switch it is one that the filmmakers seem to have anticipated. Within the film within the film Richmond is repeatedly asked by a documentary filmmaker to explain, to define, what hardcore is. She never does so, thus neatly sidestepping any truth-in-advertising issues. Must be some other hardcore you, the desperate, lonely, dirty-Mac wearing cliché, were thinking of and looking for. (Doubtless, however, many in this target audience also knew just where to get ‘the real thing’ denied them here.)

While today Britain is more liberal in some ways, in others things have moved in the other direction. I doubt that if the film were to be made today it would include a family album type shot of a pre-pubescent topless Richmond for fear of attracting the paedophile demographic. An episode in which a supposedly teenage Richmond has sex with her teacher would likewise likely be unacceptable for similar reasons; certainly it could not be played for laughs.

A 31 or 32 year old plays a schoolgirl

The past, as they say, is a different country.

Yet, to trot out another cliché, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Witness another episode in which Richmond appears on a television programme to debate the subjects of sex and censorship with the obligatory Mary Whitehouse stand-in, here named Norma Blackhurst.

Richmond – or her scriptwriters – first draw a comparison between appetites for sex and food, thus attempting to naturalise what the puritanical Blackhurst denies as unnatural.

They then manage to draw Blackhurst into using the kind of ‘foul’ language that she had asserted never to use, leading to dialogue that is as much bleeps as actual words.


The impartial presenter – whom Richmond later has sex with, alongside less well-known, actual hardcore starlet Heather Deeley – contributes to the debate by attacking that familiar chink in the pro-censorship campaigner’s armour, their knowing something is wrong without actually reading, looking at or listening to it: “How can you pass fair comment if you’ve only glanced at it?”

Today the denial of the Whitehouse types – take a bow the renamed National Viewers and Listeners Assocation, Mediawatch – remains the same, even if the TV station would no longer bother bleeping the words, instead just prefacing the program with a strong language warning. But this kind of thing inevitably doesn’t satisfy the Mediawatch bluenoses. (I refrain from linking to Mediawatch for the obvious reason. Why link to an enemy?)

If the filmmakers critique here was to be expected, what was perhaps less predictable were the way in which the film deals with the softcore magazine for which Richmond worked and which was published by her partner, Paul Raymond. (Raymond was, by most accounts, also a silent partner on this film.)

Raymond Towers? (Phallic double entendre intentional, given much of the film's dialogue)

Men Only’s editor is presented in less than flattering terms, while the other staffer we see as a lecherous Dick Randall alike who is always groping the models’ breasts. When Richmond, who works for the magazine both here and in real life, suggests the possibility of a feature that would involve her screwing in a balloon over the Alps, the idea goes down like a lead zeppelin: “Have you thought of the cost?!”

Of course such self-critique remains at a base level: You admit that what you are doing is shit, but keep on doing it as long as someone is willing to pay for this selfsame shit.

There’s not much to be said about James Kenelm Clarke’s direction, other than that is better than might be expected: Functional and efficient, it’s not shit.

His music is another matter entirely. The man, who worked as James Clarke in the Library Music scene of the time, proves to have some serious grooves going on. (Hardcore’s music has been released on CD, along with that for Expose and Let’s Get Laid, both also starring Richmond.)

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Do You Want it Good or Tuesday?

I had wanted to read Jimmy Sangster's memoirs of his 50 years in the film business when they were first published in 1997, but never managed to get a copy at the time or track them down on Ebay or the like. So when I belatedly discovered that they had been reprinted last year, I immediately ordered a copy.

The key feature of the memoirs is that they are no-nonsense, completely without pretensions or delusions of grandeur. This is summed up by the phrase Sangster has chosen for his title: Did they want something that does the job or something that goes that bit further?

The book itself falls into the latter camp: If you're just one of those horror fans who wants to know about Sangster's Hammer years and not interested in what he did next, well you can skip that stuff.

To do so would be a shame, however. You'd only get half the Sangster story, which is punchily and amusingly recounted throughout, and wouldn't see the continuities and contrasts between the British film industry in the 1950s and 60s and the US television industry in the 1970s and 80s.

The bottom line in both cases was the bottom line: Resist the temptation to write something you cannot afford to actually shoot. The main difference was that with Hammer the relationship between writing something and then having it filmed was closer. There was a lot less bullshit and deal-making than in Hollywood. It was just the ways that Hammer and Hollywood worked.

The problem the aspiring screenwriter may have here is that Sangster is very much talking about the past. Hammer, in particular, is no more. But these are his memoirs, after all, and not a “how to” manual.

Anyone with an interest in business of filmmaking will learn something from them nonetheless, even if this is often by reading between the lines and of what not to do. Everyone will certainly be entertained by them, Hammer aficionado or not.

Friday 14 May 2010

Nice Leone posters

More works of art than mere advertising, with good play upon iconic images and concepts from the three films:

Monday 3 May 2010

Robowar - Robot da guerra

Luigi Cozzi once remarked that one of the distinguishing features of the Italian cinema in the 1970s and 1980s was the kind of producer who didn't want to know what your film was like but rather what film it was like.

1988's Robowar - Robot da guerra is a perfect illustration of this point and thus the filone principle in action. For the film, the work of the prolific Bruno Mattei / Claudio Fragasso team, can be summarised neatly as Predator meets Robocop.

After a helicopter is shot down in a remote jungle, a group of ex-Vietnam specialists known as the Bad Ass Motherfuckers are assigned to help a military scientist on a mystery mission.

While the local guerillas / bad guys don't prove much of an obstacle to the BAM's, it soon turns out that there is something far more dangerous out there, the cyborg warrior Omega 1...

Mattei's and Fragasso's work is better than might be expected. But this is perhaps less perhaps because they don't so much take Predator as an inspiration but actually lift plot points, set-ups and dialogue directly from it, all the way through to to the you-have-been watching style end credits.

Taken on its own terms as a no-nonsense action-adventure exploitation film, the area where the film is weakest is not when it comes to realising Omega 1.

For while the film-makers have no problems with blowing up extensive sections of Philippines jungle – or of borrowing footage of such from their back-catalogue, one exploding hut being much the same as another – they didn't have much of the budget for stop motion, computer generated or other effects necessary here.

In particular the heavily pixelated shots that represent the cyborg's POV leave you wondering how he was able to distinguish between friend, foe and landscape to begin with.

Future Fatal Frames director Al Festa contributes a surprisingly decent, if derivative, synthesiser based score.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Nice British sleaze blog

Posters, profiles, reviews, photos, clips etc:

The Wife Swappers

Although the mondo film was, as its name suggests, an Italian invention, its pseudo-documentary exploitation format was one which was readily exportable to other countries and imitable by their film-makers.

Thus West Germany gave us the Schoolgirl Report series and the US entries like the Italian sounding Mondo Oscenita and the more overtly homegrown Mondo Mod, Mondo Teeno and Mondo Topless.

British film-makers, however, tended to avoid the mondo label, instead preferring the likes of raw and primitive, usually deployed in some combination with London.

One of the key British players here was Stanley Long, a writer, producer, director, cinematographer and general go-to-man who worked on numerous British exploitation films in a variety of capacities over the course of the 1960s.

Another, working in a similarly broad range of capacities was Derek Ford.

The two men pooled their talents at the end of the decade, with the result being this film, an expose of the then-hot phenomenon of Wife Swapping.

The film's hypocritical mixture of voyeurism and condemnation is evident from the opening voice-off atop scene-setting images of London:

“Within the urban sprawl of any great city there is almost an infinite number of variations in human behaviour, millions upon millions of people going about their everyday business. Unfortunately we shall also find gambling alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography and every conceivable kind of sexual licentiousness.”

Needless to say, without these vices and licentiousness, along with a desire amongst a certain portion of the public to partake in them via film – I'm talking about you and me – the film-makers obviously wouldn't have had anything to work with.

But if their moral claims must be taken with a more than the recommended daily amount of salt, this can also be explained by the need for the film to have some sort of educational or social value.

Or, to be more exacting, particular kinds of these values. The nature of the BBFC at the time was, after all, such that no film without suitable pedigree – i.e. not a Stanley Long production – could ever really be neutral about wife swapping or sexual licentiousness. The terms couldn't be placed up for discussion, but rather had to be taken at face value. The established order of things, or things as they had existed before the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s, had to be reasserted.

This reactionary aspect first becomes manifest about a third of the way into the film with the appearance of a psychoanalyst whose role is to proffering purportedly informed, objective and scientific commentary upon the reconstructions cum case studies presented for our entertainment and edification.

The message seems to be that unless your sex life is confined to the missionary position for the purposes of dutiful procreation then you will come to a nasty end: “The logic of all S&M relationships is the seeking of total destruction,” with the jaded thrill-seeker going to greater and greater lengths in pursuit of a newer, harder, kick.

If this puritanical attitude prevents the film from being as much fun as it might otherwise be it also heightens its value as a cultural artefact beyond the usual incidentals of fashions, hairstyles and so on.

This is important in that there's actually previous little to get excited about in terms of nudity and sex, while the balance of the material within the film is heavily skewed towards the imagined and reconstructed, with little that comes across as genuine – and this with other mondo films as a baseline.

This is most evident in a sequence which warns against the danger of wife swapping meetings being used as a front for garnering blackmail material. The blackmailers use special cameras which do not require as much light as their normal counterparts, but for this to be made visible to the filmmakers' camera everything obviously has to be lit conventionally.

A sequence featuring a publisher of contact magazines is better, with the man's discussion of how he first got into the business and of its risks coming across as having been drawn from life and the experiences of the film-makers' themselves or others within their circle. Again, however, one can't help feeling it would have been better had a real-life pornographer been present on camera rather than an actor playing one.

Another point of note is the film's title. In the US the film was released as The Swappers rather than The Wife Swappers. It may seem a minor alteration but is in fact one which suggests an important shift in meaning: Wife Swapping implies a male prerogative, that the woman is a piece of property to be exchanged with another man without her having much say in the matter, swapping a somewhat more egalitarian arrangement.

Perhaps the greatest irony about the film's approach is in relation to the life of director Ford. According to fellow-filmmaker Ray Selfe, Ford was something of a male nymphomaniac – or satyr. While not wishing to commit the intentional fallacy, of drawing direct comparisons between author and text, or engage in amateur psychoanalysis of the sort found within the diegesis, there does seem to be something inadvertently revealing about The Wife Swappers' approach.

The film's opposition between public virtue and private vice is also one that Ford himself seems to have followed, publicly professing to be a somewhat reluctant maker of softcore sex films whilst privately shooting hardcore inserts and versions after hours.

In this he contrasts with another figure associated with the production, stills photographer John Lindsay, who is inadvertently caught on camera in this capacity in the opening scene. Lindsay never made any secret of shooting hardcore, nor that it was just business, nothing personal.

In sum, neither the best nor the worst of its type – such positions necessarily being relative ones – but worth a look for the British trash fan.

Dr Who meets Hell of the Living Dead?

So I am working my way through various vintage Dr Who stories from the John Pertwee and Tom Baker eras (none of this modern rubbish for me).

Tonight it is Inferno, a Pertwee-era story in which an ill-advised drilling project threatens to destroy the Earth. Besides the title there are the transformed humans, various references to zombies, and a sequence where the Dr and a technician enter into a heated chamber wearing safety suits.

Take a look:

Il consigliori / The Counsellor

As the title suggests, Il consigliori / The Counsellor lies squarely within the filone inaugurated by the success of The Godfather.

An Amati film set in San Francisco with a Riz Ortolani score, but it's not Perversion Story

But as a cut-price Italian imitation of its model, it also necessarily differs from its Italian-American counterpart in a number of significant ways.

Most obviously there is its duration, an hour and a half rather than three hours, along with the concomitant lack of epic grandeur.

But it is also evident in the western rather than eastern US settings, which take us away from the traditional US mafia heartlands, and the composite rather than xerox nature of the three main characters, as incarnated by Martin Balsam, Tomas Milian and Francesco Rabal.

Balsam plays the film's godfather figure, Don Antonio Macaluso.

Milian plays the Don's adoptive son, consigliori and lawyer Thomas Accardo.

But with Don Macaluso having no actual family Milian also occupies a somewhat Michael Corleone type role as reluctant heir-apparent and through his relationship with Dagmar Lassander's Kay Adams-like schoolteacher.

It is this that creates a tension with Rabal's character, Vincent Garofalo.

If he's the prodigal son and villain of the piece, he's also one who we can have some sympathy for, considering the way he he is treated by the Don.

The story begins with Accardo about to be released from jail and the Don and Garofalo deciding that former colleague Lucchese must be killed as, insane and liable to shoot his mouth off, he is a threat to the organisation as a whole.


The key tropes are the classic ones: First, once you are in, you don't leave except for via a casket. Second, it's nothing personal, only business.

Re-united, if only temporarily; note the classic use of empty space to suggest distance

When Accardo is freed and announces his intention to leave the family, Don Macaluso breaks these rules by agreeing to let him go. What makes this all the worse in Garofalo's eyes is that the Don also refuses to let him establish his own family.

Accordingly Garofalo makes a deal with some rival families and attempts a coup. Unfortunately for him the attempts on both the Don's and Thomas's lives fail...

Around about this point another key difference between The Godfather and The Counsellor emerges.

The Corleone family would personally act only if there was no other option, as with Michael's killing Solozzo and Captain McCluskey, or when it took precedence over business concerns, as with Sonny's tendency towards hot-headed impulse decisions. Personal involvement entailed greater risk of being implicated in a crime, whose actual commission was best left to a “button man”.

Here, by contrast, the Don, Accardo and Garofalo tend to lead their men by example, entering into the fray when it isn't strictly necessary. It's maybe not particularly plausible – though, again, given the cut-rate nature of these mobs, it could be – but does at least allow for plenty of action.

Obligatory car chase

Another pleasing aspect of the film in this regard is the unpleasantness of its violence, as with the little girl who gets blown up by the package intended for Accardo or the feeding of a restaurant owner who shelters the Don into a pizzeria oven; since the film's cinematographer was Aristide Massaccessi, one half wonders if this image inspired Annie Belle's fate in Absurd.

Those who prefer Milian's more mannered performances may be disappointed by the relative restraint he displays here. The important point is that this is in line with his character and, as such, serves to demonstrate Milian's dynamic range.

Alberto De Martino's direction is functional, efficient and very much what the film needs. It's only business (filone cinema), after all, and nothing personal (auteur cinema).